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Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

Perfect for fans of The Penderwicks and James Patterson’s Middle School series, this seriously funny, anything-but-typical modern family adventure features two dads, four adopted boys, and a variety of pets.

Meet the Fletchers. Their year will be filled with new schools, old friends, a grouchy neighbor, hungry
skunks, leaking ice rinks, school plays, wet cats, and scary tales told in the dark!

There’s Sam, age twelve, who’s mostly interested in soccer, food, and his phone; Jax, age ten, who’s psyched for fourth grade and thinks the new neighbor stinks, and not just because of the skunk; Eli, age ten (but younger than Jax), who’s thrilled to be starting this year at the Pinnacle School, where everyone’s the smart kid; and Frog (not his real name), age six, who wants everyone in kindergarten to save a seat for his invisible cheetah. Also Dad and Papa. The Family Fletcher is fun to know.

This is the story about four adoptive brothers, Eli, Jax, Sam and Frog (gosh I love that nickname) and their misadventures throughout the school year. As the blurb suggests, there’s plenty going on in this story with skunks and grouchy neighbors and plenty of animals, but there are also lessons that are learned. The boys’ struggles are those that many children encounter -- changing friendships, discovering new talents, adjusting to new schools, and learning to accept their mistakes. The Fletcher family handles these challenges with grace and, always, with lots of love. There are plenty of laugh out loud and feel good moments that will bring a smile to your face. 

I did feel that the beginning was a bit slow because a lot of backstory is introduced, but after the 3rd or fourth chapter, I really began to settle into the story. I found myself eager to see how the boys would resolve their problems. In the end, I find this to be a fabulous debut, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with my kids.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: The Wicked We Have Done

Evalyn Ibarra never expected to be an accused killer and experimental prison test subject. A year ago, she was a normal college student. Now she’s been sentenced to a month in the compass room—an advanced prison obstacle course designed by the government to execute justice.

If she survives, the world will know she’s innocent.

Locked up with nine notorious and potentially psychotic criminals, Evalyn must fight the prison and dismantle her past to stay alive. But the system prized for accuracy appears to be killing at random.

She doesn’t plan on making friends.

She doesn’t plan on falling in love, either.

Sarah Harian's debut The Wicked We Have Done has that "I couldn't put it down" mojo that I crave when searching for books. From the first line I knew that I was going to be sucked into it, and I was right. Evalyn's character comes screaming out of the page - tough and smart with just enough compassion for others that you know she's someone to root for. Evalyn also has a certain vulnerability that I found compelling. By feeding us little pieces of her past, Harian reveals Evalyn's true character, the one she doesn't let the other criminals see. I thought that Evalyn's guilt was all wrapped up in one element of her story, but it turned out there was a lot more to it than what I thought I knew. In the end, I found myself questioning, what if I were Evalyn, how would I have reacted? My lingering thoughts about Evalyn's true moral compass raises questions that sit in that gray area between right and wrong; it's given me a lot to contemplate.

Others have pointed to the similarity between this book and The Hunger Games, and while the similarity is definitely there, I felt like this book set a very different tone than THG, a tone that is more specifically new adult. The characters are raw and crass, their dialogue snappy and intelligent. And there is definitely a sexiness to this story that THG barely touches on.  I think that readers will enjoy the steamy romance. I know I did. 

Harian also doesn't hold back on the gruesome. Some have said that it has a horror story vibe to it, and while I can see that, I honestly never felt frightened of what was to come next. (I think after being raised on Stephen King novels, I've made myself immune to book fright?) In any case, the little drops of blood seen on the front cover are quite accurate; it's not a story for the squeamish.

There are some quibbles that I have with regards to the editing of the book which I think go beyond what one would normally expect for an ARC.  I hope that the editors smooth out these areas before publication, and I also hope that readers will realize these issues don’t sit solely on the author’s shoulders. This is what you get when publishers try to squeeze out books in a hurry in order to compete with the self-pub market. That said, I give the story (minus the editing) 5 stars - it was quick paced, with great characters, dialogue that made me all jelly, and prose that I thought was just fantastic at times.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

A beautiful and distinguished family.

A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.

Lies upon lies.

True love.
The truth.
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

I finished this a few days ago and had to give myself time to wrap my mind around it. Overall, I enjoyed the story and would recommend it, but I had some issues that prevent it from hitting 5 stars, which is where I really wanted to see it go. See, this book is marketed as a psychological thriller, but by the end I felt like it was trying to be something different-- a contemporary/literary with the theme of friendship and family that wanted you to have all the feels. I'm just not sure these two genres mesh together very well. Throughout the book there's the mystery of what happened to Cadence, what has she forgotten, and how the Liars are involved. I was constantly guessing which one of them has wronged her. I can't really say more without giving the ending away, but I think that by creating characters with this silent "whodunit" hanging over their heads, it became difficult to get emotionally attached to them. And by the end, (and wow! it was a great ending) I really wanted to be emotionally attached. Only, I wasn't.

The other issue I had was the pacing. For three quarters of the book, things moved soooo slowly. Very little seems to happen, the main character never seems to be in any danger (isn't that typically necessary for a thriller?) and the "clues" that the author gave were far too subtle to make any guesses as to what was going on. Everything seemed so random, and I had no idea what had happened to her (I usually like to make guesses with mysteries/thrillers; that's the fun of it). Then, suddenly, the pacing changed. Cadence remembers something, and then some more somethings, and then before I knew what was happening, I'm being TOLD everything that she had forgotten. And it's pretty devastating, but... there was no suspense, no driving force that was making her remember, no "wow" event that triggered the remembering. The book had shifted from being a thriller to being a contemporary, and I felt somehow...cheated? 

Like I said, overall I enjoyed the story. E. Lockhart's smooth prose is easy to sink into. The scenery makes you feel like you've been transported. And the characters were memorable, just not very emotional. Then, there's the ending; I'll probably still be thinking about it in a few months. Just wish that the thriller aspect had melded a bit better with the contemporary aspects of the story. Or maybe I wish that I hadn't read the blurb at all before I started it. Sometimes marketing can backfire, I guess, and in E. Lockhart's case... sorry, I cannot lie.  She could sell this book off her name alone.  :)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: The Archived by Victoria Schwab

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books.

Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.

Being a Keeper isn’t just dangerous—it’s a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da’s death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.

In this haunting, richly imagined novel, Victoria Schwab reveals the thin lines between past and present, love and pain, trust and deceit, unbearable loss and hard-won redemption.

 Imagine that your life is like a book, each day a page, each year a chapter. When you die, the "book" gets copied or cloned into what looks like a person with bones and flesh (but not blood) and kept in a drawer to sleep (sort of like you would see in the morgue). These dead, soulless copies are called Histories. The Histories are housed in a special place called The Archive, which is like a library (or a huge morgue), and the workers in the Archive are called Librarians. But... sometimes Histories wake up, become confused, escape the Archive, and end up in an "in between" space called the Narrows. That's where Keepers like Mackenzie come in. Their job is to capture escaped Histories and put them back into the Archive before they figure out how to leave the Narrows. This is important because if they do manage to leave the Narrows and get into the real world, then BAD things happen. Confusing? YES.

I have to admit that I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of The Archive and the Histories at first. I kept trying to draw these parallels between what I know of ghosts, the afterlife and religion, thinking that Schwab had just renamed it all to give her story a twist. And in a way she did because the Histories are just spooky and crazy enough to make you think that they are ghosts. But at the same time, the concept is completely different and there really isn't much mention of what happens to a person's soul when they die. Or, is a person's soul their history and life experiences? Interesting question that I will have to ponder. Another question that I ponder is the whole "why" of it. Heaven has a purpose; Hell has a purpose. For a while, I thought the Archive had a purpose, but near the end of the story I was beginning to have my doubts. Spoiler: In the end we find out that Librarians are actually Histories as well,  woken to take care of other Histories whether they want to or not. I started to ask myself, who runs this joint? Why? What is the purpose of it all? And I hope that the next book gives me some answers. Anyway, despite the fact that it took a while for the whole concept to come together for me, I still enjoyed the story throughout. There are great characters and a mystery to solve and heart-wrenching emotions as Mac deals with the loss of her brother.

A little more about Mac -- she reminded me a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I know may sound strange because the story does not have the same tone as Buffy AT ALL. There are no vampires, and Mac, for the most part, doesn't go around staking people (or Histories). But Mac does have this really insane, tough, and at times dangerous job which she has to keep a secret from her family and friends. It consumes her life to the point where she wishes she were just an ordinary girl who could go out on dates. And like Buffy, Mac is a bit kickass, with fighting abilities and a cool head. The way she commits herself to a job that asks too much of her gives her a maturity that I admired. Schwab does a great job of making Mac into a strong character who feels "real", who has real emotions, makes mistakes, and still perseveres. At times, my heart really went out to her, and I felt her fears as well as her heartache.

Schwab's writing is also just lovely with great descriptions and numerous details that made me feel like I was right there. As the summary states, the book is haunting, not unlike Schwab's first book, The Near Witch. Overall, it lacks that little umph that would push it into my top faves for the year, but I feel bad giving it just 4 stars because it is so very very close. Hence my 5 star rating, and hence my recommendation that you check it out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.

She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

I'm gonna tell you, reading this book I felt like I was at a smorgasbord where all my favorites were being served. First, this book is by an author who wrote one of the best books I read last year: Ruta Sepetys. Second, it's an historical young adult that takes place in my absolute favorite decade of the 20th century: the fifties. Finally, it's set in one of the cities I love best in the United States: New Orleans, or as natives would say, Nawlins.  I gotta tell you, I was in hog heaven for three days reading this one. 

The story starts out where you least expect it to. Well, for a young adult novel that is -- in a brothel. The main character, Josie, is introduced and even as a child, she shines so bright it's like you KNOW this book is just going to get better and better. And it does. Josie is a tough cookie, but at the same time she's sweet as pudding. She has high morals and just wants to escape the sordid life her mother has put her in, but to do that she has to play the game of manipulation herself. And she's good at it. There were moments where you feel soooo bad for Josie (like when we're told that her mother came a parent's night dressed in a fur coat with nothing under neath!), and you want her to win and get out of her situation more than anything. And then things just get worse -- all due to her mother. I hated her mom, I truly did, but what struck me about Josie's character is that she doesn't let herself feel that hate. It makes you scratch your head while thinking to yourself, well, that's actually quite admirable. Because hate makes people ugly, and although Josie's desperation drives her to do some unexpected things, her character is anything but ugly.

But Sepetys didn't stop at Josie's character. No, there are a whole cast of colorful and loving and unexpected characters. Confession time: back when I was in high school I came across a book packed away in my mom's closet, a book entitled *get ready to gasp* The Happy Hooker, written by then New York madam, Xavier Hollander. Oh, how I devoured that book! (okay, you can stop gasping now). The thing that struck me about The Happy Hooker was how the prostitutes were portrayed as...well, as happy. And like... well, like a family. It was eye-opening, and I mention it because reading Out of the Easy and watching all of the brothel characters in this book reminded me of The Happy Hooker, minus the erotic aspects of course. First we have Willie, the brothel madam, who seems like this hard-hearted beast at first but who we come to learn is really a caring woman, almost like a mother to Josie. Then there are the prostitutes. They all have their own quirky personalities. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at all times just like a family. We're not made to forget that they're prostitutes though - there are plenty of fun descriptions of their patrons and green feather boas and what not -- but at the same time you get a sense of empowerment through them. These women had life throw them a curve, and they learned to roll with it and not let it roll them over. It was well done, and I give Sepetys huge kudos for portraying the women this way. It also kind of makes me wonder if she ever read The Happy Hooker herself. :)

Touching a bit on themes: one that stands out in this story is that monetary worth and societal position does not make a person what they are. We see this again and again as we wade through the story. The prostitutes in the brothel are not bad people. Willie is not a heartless old crone. Cokie is not just a poor cab driver, but a good friend. And on the flipside, a rich businessman has more creep to him than respectability. All of these people have helped to shape Josie's character and personality. They've given her hope and dreams and love that she otherwise wouldn't have had. Warning: spoiler!!!! : I really thought that this was set up for Josie to come to the realization that New Orleans isn't a beast afterall, but her home, as Willie tries to convince her. However, Sepetys doesn't seem to take the lesson that far. She never brings Josie to the conclusion that she can love New Orleans, with all its faults, because its the people who make a place home. When Josie leaves it does indeed seem as though she's leaving everyone and everything behind.

After finishing this book, I read through the acknowledgments, which I tend to do these days just for fun. I was surprised, and quite happy, to find that Anne Rice inspired Sepetys's writing of the New Orleans setting. I won't say that I felt quite as immersed as I always feel when reading Anne Rice, but I do think she did a decent job. The details were there - the descriptive architecture, the food, the sounds of the French Quarter, the smell of the streets after a night of partying. It gave me a little tug that whispered, "let's go there again!" and at the same time made me want to revisit some of Rice's stories. 

Overall, I'd give this book 5 stars. Great characters, wonderful setting, excellent writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it!



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